MESSAGE FOR NOVEMBER 12, 2000 FROM ROMANS 16:1-16
This morning we move into the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 16. Let’s read through verse 16. Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. 2I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me. 3Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus. 4They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them. 5Greet also the church that meets at their house. Greet my dear friend Epenetus, who was the first convert to Christ in the province of Asia. 6Greet Mary, who worked very hard for you. 7Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. 8Greet Ampliatus, whom I love in the Lord. 9Greet Urbanus, our fellow worker in Christ, and my dear friend Stachys. 10Greet Apelles, tested and approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the household of Aristobulus. 11Greet Herodion, my relative. Greet those in the household of Narcissus who are in the Lord. 12Greet Tryphena and Tryphosa, those women who work hard in the Lord. Greet my dear friend Persis, another woman who has worked very hard in the Lord. 13Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too. 14Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas and the brothers with them. 15Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas and all the saints with them. 16Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ send greetings.”
If we are reading through the book of Romans for our morning devotions, this section of the letter would be one many of us would decide to skip over. It seems to be largely irrelevant to us and our lives. What spiritual food can you get from a text that contains almost nothing except personal greetings from an apostle to members of the Roman church, all of whom have been dead for nearly two thousand years? You might just as well hope to get devotional blessing from a long lost correspondence between George and Martha Washington, or so we might be tempted to believe. Again, we must remember and trust in the promise of 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All scripture is inspired and is profitable” to us. It is true this section of the letter is not devoted to explicit teaching on any particular subject. There is be less theological content than in other sections where Paul is explicitly teaching. We are not going to be able to formulate our understanding of any major theological topic from this text. We run into trouble if we derive our understanding of any major doctrine from narrative texts or ones like this one. But having said that, there is still truth here that can speak to us and be used of God to “transform us by the renewing of our minds.”
In fact, texts like this one give us the unique perspective of a person eavesdropping on one of those “slice of life” moments in first century church life. And since first century church life as seen in Paul’s life and even the church of Rome were both exemplary, this gives us a valuable opportunity to see a snapshot of healthy church life here. We are privileged to be spectators here as we observe how church leadership, in this case the apostle Paul, relates to the body of Christ in a place where, though he had never visited, he knew a few of the people and had heard of, by reputation, some of the others.
Because this text is a slice of life from the church, we will center our thoughts around what it can teach us about the church of Christ. Although this text no where says it explicitly, it clearly paints a picture of capturing this truth: the church of Christ, when it is healthy, is a glorious organism to be a part of. This truth, which we see born out in this text, is one we so badly need to hear today in the church. It is tempting to give up on the church when we see a North American church so impotent, ingrown, superficial and riddled with scandal and sin. This organism called the body of Christ can seem sometimes to be only a source of discouragement. That’s why when we see a biblical text that gives us a snapshot of healthy church life, its important to come to it as the dry sponges we are and soak up the living waters that flows from it. Let’s make two observations about this church as we see it in the first half of chapter 16. First, The church of Christ is a wonderfully diverse mosaic of people bound together in love by their union with Christ.
It would have been hard, if not impossible to find a more diverse group of people than the church who voluntarily and regularly gathered together in the first century. This group we see here in Romans 16 would have had little if anything to do with one another had it not been for their common bond in Christ. Just from this list, we can find three very diverse pairings of people. The first pairing of people can be classed by their diversity in socio-economic status. At the lower end of the socio-economic strata in Romans society were the slaves and this list indicates the presence of slaves in the church at Rome. We know from ancient inscriptions that certain names were commonly given predominantly to slaves. We also know from books like Philemon and Ephesians that slaves played an important role in the life of the early church. Six of the names Paul gives here are names common to slaves—Ampliatus, Urbanus, Hermes, Philologus and Julia. Though slaves in this time and place were not generally as poorly treated as many of those in our country’s history and many were eventually freed, they were generally seen to be in the lower levels of society and were considered to be someone else’s property.
This list also tells us there were people who came from very well to do and highly placed families in Roman society at the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum. In verses 10-11, Paul greets those who belong to the “households of Aristobulus and Narcissus.” Scholars believe these households bear the name of two very highly placed Roman citizens. It is thought that Aristobulus was Herod the Great’s grandson and Narcissus was a wealthy citizen who had a position of influence with the Emperor Claudius. Now, both of these men were probably dead by the time Paul wrote the Romans, but people of their household or family had become believers. These were wealthy people near the very top of Roman society. Also, Phoebe, mentioned in verse two is referred to as one who “helps.” That word “help” in the original means “benefactress.” In other words, Phoebe helped out people by giving them money. Phoebe was a person of means. So, here in the church you have Roman slaves alongside those with perhaps great wealth and honor in Roman society.
A second area of diversity we have already seen before in the letter. That is, the presence of both Jews and Gentiles in the same church. Those people Paul refers to as his “relatives” or (more literally) “kinsman” are Jews. That is his designation for them. These include Andronicus and Junias in verse seven and Herodion in verse eleven. We also know from other places in the New Testament that Prisca (or Priscilla) and Aquila were Jews. These rest were probably Gentiles. We have seen before the profound differences between these two groups. The Jews could draw their family line back to Abraham. Paul says in 9:4-5, “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ…” These people have a rich and remarkable spiritual heritage, yet ironically only a tiny fraction of these people accepted Christ. Then there are the Gentiles who had no spiritual heritage. They were godless, yet they were coming to Christ in droves and in so doing were adopted by God through Christ as true sons of Abraham. They greatly outnumbered the Jews in the assembly at Rome and, as we’ve seen, had a tendency to flaunt their freedom from Jewish ceremonial laws. These are two very diverse people groups with very different backgrounds that have been brought together in Christ.
A final expression of this incredible diversity is seen in gender. Of the 26 names, nine were women and none of these women were listed as “the wife of so and so.” That is, these women in and of themselves made significant contributions to the cause of Christ. There is no chauvinism seen here. Phoebe, we’ve already seen as one who was “a great help to many people, including me.” Phoebe, through financial gifts and doubtless other ways was a person God used significantly in the early church. Prisca, or Priscilla is listed not only here but are also mentioned with her husband Aquila in Acts, First Corinthians, Ephesians and Second Timothy as ministering alongside Paul as well as to leaders like Apollos to whom she and Aquila “explained the way of God more adequately.” These women served in crucial roles in the early church. Though none of them are listed as elders and 1 Timothy 2 restricts women from that role, there is no reason to believe that at virtually every other level of ministry, women were just as involved and important to the church as men were. This is remarkable and should obliterate any chauvinistic attitudes that have sadly marked much of church history.
We’ve seen this diversity is multi-layered. There are the slave and the free, the poor and the rich, the white collar and blue collar, literate and illiterate, the Jew and Gentile, the men and women all serving side by side. Frankly, this list represents a far more diverse group of people than are in this room. This is a very homogenous group we have assembled here. We are almost exclusively white, literate, middle class, Northern European, Gentiles. There are far fewer cultural, economic, religious and racial barriers for us to get over than the ones the early church faced. The early church looked very differing in its make up than our church in Duluth, Minnesota.
In the world today, diversity is celebrated as an end in itself. We hear phrases like “the glorious melting pot of America” and, “our strength is in our diversity.” On a purely human level, there is probably some truth to that. But the reason diversity in Christ’s church is glorious has little to do with the human strength it brings. The reason the diversity we see here in this text should thrill us is three-fold. First, this diversity trumpets the worthiness of God. God is worthy of worship from people of every economic, social, ethnic, religious and gender background. God’s appeal is not limited to one group of people the way a political candidate’s might be. God is so glorious, so magnificent, he draws the adoration and worship from all kinds of people. This brings him glory. That’s why heaven will be made up of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. Because his glorious appeal as the Lord of the universe is universal. The diversity in the church speaks NOT about the strength of the church, but the glory of her Lord. The second reason we should exult whenever we see diversity in the body of Christ is because it proclaims the breadth of God’s mercy. Our God will save ANYONE through the blood of Christ. By that I mean, no one people group is outside the reach of his mercy. And by saving people from every group he shows that there is NOTHING any one group possesses that makes them uniquely appealing to Him. He is not impressed with money or position—he saves the poorest of the poor to be his own. He is not bigoted against the wealthy--he will save them if they bend the knee to Christ. He saves the obscure and the famous, the wealthy and the homeless, the scientists and the laborer, the kings and the death row inmates. The breadth of his mercy knows no bounds. We have no business writing anyone off as being too rich or too ignorant or too foreign. God will save anyone from any group because his mercy is not limited by any category of people.
Finally, this diversity is beautiful to God because it shows the power of God to unite a diverse group of people who would otherwise never seek to be together. Think how desirable God must be to draw people together of intensely different backgrounds BECAUSE they are all irresistibly drawn to HIM. What does that say about Christ? What would it take for a group of people who, by their sinful nature are narrow and bigoted, distrustful, parochial and cliquish—what would it take to cause people to flatten all those walls and come together to love God and love each other? It would take a glorious, majestic God—that’s what it would take! Think how big he must be to able to take a group of people who look like this list in Romans 16 and bring them together as one. This speaks volumes to us in our church because here we sit in this homogenous white, middle class monolith and yet we don’t show nearly the love to each other as Paul calls for in this letter to these people who are far more diverse. When we, who are so much more naturally fitted to one another are exclusive, socially and demographically divided, forming cliques at warp speed, what does that say about the strength of our desire to be with Christ and His people?
It says, among other things, that we don’t have a very powerful desire for Christ because we allow much smaller barriers to keep us from loving each other as his body here. Even more scandalously, what it communicates to the world is our God is not big enough, not glorious enough to draw even a slightly diverse group of people together in love. Its clear from this list that God intends, for the praise of His glory, for his church to be diverse, a group where the only explanation for their formation and continued gathering is the unifying power and love of Jesus Christ. When we, who are far less diverse divide into cliques, that shouts loud and clear that we sadly lack the supernatural element of God’s unifying love for him and for each other. The way to grow in our love for each other is not to have seminars on conflict management and valuing each other’s pershonhood. No, what draws us together is our bond in Christ. The most repeated phrases in this text are the phrases “in Christ” and “in the Lord.”
That’s what unites us. If we are not loving each other as we should, if we are allowing the comparatively tiny cultural and economic barriers to separate us, the problem is we don’t love Jesus as we ought to. Its as we all zealously pursue and worship and seek to obey Christ, that our bond with each other is strengthened. “By this all men will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.” What separates a disciple of Christ from disciples of anyone else is the Christ who they follow is so glorious and desirable, he will attract and unify in love even the most diverse groups of people—they will love each other. And this love is seen in a profound way in the tender expressions of affection the apostle writes here in this section of the letter. As one scholar has said, this section is much more than just a listing of “secular hello’s” Four times he refers to people as “my beloved.” Paul loved these people deeply. These were literally his sisters and brothers. These people were family, he loved them and he didn’t care who knew it. There is such personal warmth given off by Paul in this section directed to these believers in Rome.
In order to more fully appreciate the unashamed expressions of love Paul writes here, think for a moment who Paul is. Paul is an academic. He is a scholar par excellence, having studied under the greatest Jewish Rabbi in 400 years, Gamaliel. He is Pharisee, so he is not only a scholar, he is a legal scholar. His writings are masterful expressions of logical precision and he writes without the aid of a word processor. Beyond that, Paul is “zealous”—when he was in prison, he passed the time writing letters to churches he had started. He was a church planter—always active. Today, many would class Paul as a “type A” driven personality. We know it was much deeper than that superficial label, but Paul burned with zeal. So here is this academic, Ph.D., product of the academy, legal scholar who is a driven, personality. Got that picture? But this list shows us that those designations don’t begin to do justice to a comprehensive understanding of the apostle of grace. Because this text shows us that Paul was unashamedly an impassioned lover of the people of God.
The question is, how could a person who is scholarly, brilliant, an academic of the first order, who is zealously driven—how could a person like THAT end up being an impassioned lover of God’s people? As we saw last week, his love for these brothers and sisters was birthed in his heart by the Holy Spirit. By nature, Paul was a hater of believers. God had miraculously transformed him from an intense hater of Christians to an impassioned lover of Christians. We can learn from Paul that people who tend to be more analytical, bookish, cerebral—people who tend to be more driven, don’t have to be (as they so often are) cold fish who don’t know how to love other people. We must remember what Paul says in First Corinthians 13:1-2, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”
What counts for God, what marks us off as a follower of Christ before a watching world is not our talent or knowledge or scholarship or drivenness or accomplishments, but our love for one another. Unless God has filled us with love for each other, all of our internally consistent, logically coherent arguments are nothing more than NOISE in God’s ears. At the top of God’s list of Christian virtues is love for one another and Paul beautifully models that here.
Apart from the wondrous diversity of the church of Christ, apart from the bond of love that brings unity from this diversity, this text points to another observation we can make of the church. That is :A healthy church is marked by people who work hard in decentralized ministry. As Paul lists these people to whom he sends greetings the most prevalent personal characteristic among these Romans he cites refers to the work the people did in ministry. In verses three, six, nine and 12 Paul refers to work done by the believers. In verses six and twelve, Paul says Mary and Persis, “worked hard” in the Lord. The word means to “work intensely.” It is a word Paul uses to describe his own work in ministry. In Colossians 1:29 where he says, “To this end I labor, striving with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me.” This word “labor” or “work hard” is used in parallel with the word we saw last week which means to fight or wrestle. Again, we are reminded that the Christian life for a healthy, fruitful Christian is filled with hard work for the King.
Notice the hard work is not necessarily done within the confines of a church facility. In verse five Paul says of Prisca and Aquila, “…greet the church that is in their house.” Notice the phrasing here. There is a church and it happens to meet in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Notice, the house is not called “the church,” its called “the house” where the church meets. Do we understand what this means? It means the church was not primarily associated with a building, but a group of people. Most of the ministry was not done in Priscilla and Aquila’s house. The ministry was done “out there” by the people who made up the church. These people worked hard in ministry that was not necessarily tied to the house where the church met. It was decentralized. Church buildings did not come into being until the church was 300 years old and many would argue that the buildings have not done much good for he church. The church building is not necessarily a bad thing, but we must understand that we should continuously and intentionally separate in our minds and hearts the church/the ministry of the church from the building where the church happens to meet. Those are very different animals. The vast majority of ministry of this church (the people in this room) should be done in the work places, neighborhoods and homes of the people who meet here on Sundays and Wednesday. That’s where much of the ministry should be occurring.
Do you hear how radically different that is than most people’s understanding of ministry in the church? If the majority of the ministry of this church body occurs here on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings and in committee meetings, then we are failing dismally. Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings are when we come together to worship the Lord together, encourage one another in love and get our spiritual tanks filled up so that we are equipped to do the hard work of ministry out there as the church of Christ. The ministries of the church should be occurring out there for the most part—ministry to the lost, hell-bound world out there. And not only that, but ministry to each other as we have regular contact with our brothers and sisters out there—in prayer, in fellowship, in the study of the word together. That’s the picture of the early church we see painted in Acts two. There’s none of this isolation from each other during the week and then flocking together to the church building on Sunday morning to spend a couple of hours together in superficial contact with one another.
Do you see what a glorious organism the church we see here is just from these greetings? Wouldn’t it have been something to have been there in this exemplary church whose “faith was…reported all over the world?” The great news is, the healthy church is not a museum piece for us to pick up and look at with admiration. God wants to do this here—he wants to use this church to trumpet his worthiness. He wants to use this church to show the world how desirable He is to His people, to display the breadth of His mercy. The question isn’t whether God is willing to do this here. The question is whether WE are willing for God to do this here. May God give us as a church the grace to want to be the body of Christ in all its wonder.
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